Rise in Disposable Vapes Among Youth Spurs Calls for Bans Amid Health Concerns

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The increasing popularity of inexpensive disposable vapes has amplified calls for bans, as increasing numbers of youths adopt vaping. Concern is growing in the corridors of power in Westminster, with discussions focused on strategies to diminish the number of underaged individuals purchasing and using these devices.

Cigarette smoking, universally accepted as damaging to one’s health, remains a substantial contributor to poor health, not only within the nation but globally. Even though the mortality rate attributed to smoking is on a decline, it’s still the predominant cause of preventable diseases and premature death. In fact, it’s reputed to be responsible for one-fourth of all cancer deaths, accounting for 15% of total deaths (75,000) in England in 2019.

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Over the past few decades, government promotions to deter people from smoking – through heavy taxation of tobacco, information campaigns and harm-reduction alternatives such as nicotine patches or gums- have been impactful. Still, the real game-changer occurred when smoking could be replaced with vaping. A medical study in 2019 concluded that vaping demonstrated double the success rate of other nicotine-replacement methods. This resulted in a significant drop in the smoking population, allowing the government to ambitiously target a “smoke-free” England by 2030—defined as fewer than 5% of the population engaging in the habit.

The current strategy appears to push vaping as an alternative for those struggling to stop smoking. The government has coined the strategy “Swap to stop”, indicating a preference among health ministers for vaping as a transitional phase before completely giving up nicotine inhalation products.

However, is vaping any safer than its aerosolated predecessor?

The inhaled e-cigarette vapour contains certain chemicals, including nicotine, albeit in smaller amounts. Nicotine is addictive and can foster dependency, but its harms are relatively minor on its own. Vapes do not contain tar or carbon monoxide, the most harmful elements in tobacco smoke and contain substantially lower levels of other tobacco smoke chemicals.

However, while current knowledge indicates a safer profile for vaping than smoking, the long-term effects of vaping are inconclusive. Even among experts, opinions range. One governmental advisor supposes that we may begin to see vaping-related lung cancer, chronic bronchitis, and other serious lung conditions four to five decades from now.

Concerns are additionally amplified by illicit vapes, which are pocket-friendly and hence appealing to underaged smokers. One such investigation by a Kidderminster secondary school found disturbingly high levels of lead, nickel, and chromium in used vapes. High lead exposure, particularly in children, can harm the central nervous system and inhibit brain development.

A lung disease bronchiolitis obliterans, colloquially termed “popcorn lung”, may also arise from the use of a banned e-liquid flavouring, diacetyl, found in illegal vaping products.

Despite the negatives, an unexpected demographic trend has emerged where youths have begun to accept vaping. The proportion of 11 to 17-year-olds confessing to have tried vaping jumped from 13.9% in 2020 to 20.5% in the latest survey by the Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) group. In 2022, more underaged individuals experimented with vaping than with smoking for the first time.

The number of regular vapers across all age spectrums in England, Wales, and Scotland reached 4.3 million (8.3% of adults) in the previous year, according to Ash, with the age group of 18-24 transitioning from lowest to highest consumer in a year. Accompanying this trend was a seven-fold surge in disposable vapes use between 2020 and 2022.

Quitting vaping, however, is not an easy journey. There is significantly less NHS support for vapers aiming to quit than those looking to stop smoking. Nicotine dependency and social rituals create regular triggers, encouraging individuals to resume vaping, and withdrawal symptoms such as cravings and mood swings are common in the early stages of quitting.